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Do I Really Need an Alignment?

Alignment assures your tires meet the road at the proper angle, your wheels are pointing straight and your tires are centered in the wheel wells. It adjusts the angles of your vehicle’s wheels to original specs for best gas mileage, proper road contact, a smooth ride and longest tire life.

The most common signs of misalignment are pulling to one side while you’re driving, unusual tire wear and a steering wheel that’s off-center even though your vehicle is pointed straight. But these symptoms can have other causes, sometimes simpler and sometimes not.

Steering pull can be caused by road conditions. If the asphalt has grooves that are slightly farther apart than your car’s axles, you may feel a pull as the tires on one side ride slightly higher. If the road is noticeably higher in the center, the vehicle may veer as the tires try to find a level surface.

Torque steer is a pull that happens during acceleration, from a difference in power being delivered to the wheels. A pull only during braking is probably from a caliper on one side sticking and not fully disengaging from the brake disc. A failing tire and improper tire rotation are two more causes of steering wheel pull.

Poor alignment may not be the issue if your steering wheel sometimes tugs in one direction and then the other. A bent or worn suspension part — ball joints, strut bearings or tie rods — could be to blame.

Atypical tire wear may be the result of worn shocks or struts, bushings or springs, or from carrying heavy loads (all of which can also put your vehicle out of alignment). Uneven wear can also be caused by driving on over-, underinflated or imbalanced tires.

An off-center steering wheel can be caused by worn steering or suspension parts. Just getting an alignment won’t fix the root cause.

One last common point of confusion: Vibration while underway is often a symptom of out-of-balance tires, not bad alignment.

When We Recommend an Alignment

An alignment is important to do when:

  • You get new tires.
  • You lower or lift your vehicle.
  • Suspension parts that affect the tire angles are replaced or adjusted.
  • You’ve had a fender-bender or a hard impact with a curb or road debris.
  • It’s been a year since your last one.

Tire stores strongly recommend an alignment after installation of new tires because they want you to get what you pay for: full tread life. They also want to be sure that any defect that becomes apparent during the warranty period is from a manufacturing issue, not from wear that could have been avoided with basic vehicle maintenance.  

Lifting or lowering a vehicle will affect your toe, camber or caster angles. So will repair or replacement of suspension and steering parts — struts, shocks, ball joints, tie rods, bushings or control arms. If one of these components is damaged, it’s a pretty good bet your vehicle’s alignment is out of spec. If you don’t fix them before your vehicle is aligned, you’ll soon have the problem recur.

Alignment checks are always advised after any significant impact with a bumper, a curb, a big pothole, an animal or anything else. It may have knocked your vehicle off spec.

Also, get a check annually, or twice yearly if you typically travel on rough roads. Regular checks are important because off alignment isn’t always obvious. The wrong toe angle can go unnoticed and so can atypical tire wear. Cars usually go out of alignment gradually, so you may not realize how much it was impacting drivability, gas mileage or tire wear until it’s corrected.

Tips Before Getting Service

Because the measurements are very fine, misalignment is not something you can see by just eyeballing whether the wheels and tire angles look right. But an experienced tire technician will usually know if you’re overdue for an alignment just by looking at your tire wear.

Here’s what to know if the service is recommended:

  • If you have a damaged suspension part, replace it first. Worn or bad parts will put your vehicle right back out of spec.
  • The technician may recommend a thrust alignment or a four-wheel alignment. Here’s a primer to understand what they’re talking about.
  • Before service, let the tech know you’d like a printout showing what your alignment measurements were prior to the work being done and the final settings for your records. You can verify the job was truly necessary. Here’s an example of what you'll see. 

Measurements before alignment: 

printout of measurements before alignment

Measurements after alignment: 

printout of measurements after alignment

Looking at existing tire wear is one way to identify misalignment but the ideal is to correct your wheel’s positions before you have early and unnecessary tire wear. Regular alignments are part of basic maintenance that helps you get full mileage out of your tires.

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